JoJo Smith, Dance Consultant for 'Saturday Night Fever,' Dies at 80

Courtesy of Cheryl Duncan & Company
JoJo Smith

The "Choreographer to the Stars" counted Sylvie Vartan, Barbara Walters, Diane von Furstenberg and Barbra Streisand among his students.

JoJo Smith, a dance consultant for the John Travolta-starring Saturday Night Fever who became known as the “Choreographer to the Stars," died Jan. 22 at the Actors Fund Home in Englewood, New Jersey, from stroke complications, his rep said. He was 80. 

With a career spanning more than six decades, some of Smith’s stage credits included playing lead Shark of the Puerto Rican teen gang in West Side Story; dancing opposite Paula Kelly in Something More; and having a central role in Joyful Noise. Smith danced on several television variety shows during the '60s and '70s. His own group, JoJo Smith and Company, staged shows and taught classes around the world, with residencies in Paris, Rio de Janeiro and several cities in Japan.

Smith has been credited with giving Hollywood and New York notables some cool dance rhythms. During the 1970s disco craze, he was known as New York’s hottest dance teacher. Among his famous disco dance students, who wanted to learn Travolta’s dance moves, were Sylvie Vartan, Barbara Walters and Diane von Furstenberg. He also coached many stars, including Barbara Streisand for her nightclub scene in The Owl and the Pussycat; Joey Heatherton in Dancin’; and Melba Moore, Shelley Winters and Barry Manilow in their own shows.

Smith will most fondly be remembered as the founder of JoJo's Dance Factory, known today as Broadway Dance Center, which he started with his former wife Sue Samuels. During this time, he became a strong advocate for a vegetarian lifestyle, even building a juice bar at the studio as a direct response to challenges with his own hips. Broadway Dance Center became one of the largest “drop-in” dance training centers in the world by continuing the structure, as well as retaining many of the same teachers that flourished at JoJo’s Dance Factory. Smith’s unique style has influenced generations of the greatest dancers and entertainers all over the world including Michael Jackson.

Smith danced in many all-black venues and productions before he made it to the big time. He was part of the original Lon Fontaine Trio at Club Harlem in Atlantic City. Smith’s original “gumboot dance” choreography for a Harry Belafonte show that toured the world was an homage to the South African gold miners’ culture and life under apartheid. He would later insert those “boot stomp” movements into some of his class dance routines. Aside from recording two albums, JoJo’s Dance Factory and Jazz Dance Today, he also composed and/or appeared on several other recordings over the years.

“JoJo Smith was a giant on the international dance scene. His technique defined ‘The Wave.’ He staged the biggest musical acts and TV specials that gained him national prominence. I was so lucky to train with him and be nurtured by him. We will forever be grateful to have known his genius and generosity,” said Debbie Allen, Smith’s former student and cousin, who is also a dancer, choreographer, television director, producer and Fame star.

“My father was an exceptional dancer-musician who created a new style of jazz dancing. His unique personality and musicality are the fabric of his choreography and his contagious energy — a true classic and a legend! I will miss our times together hanging out, but I will forever be inspired by him,” said son Jason Samuels Smith, an Emmy winner and lead from Broadway’s Bring in Da’ Noise, Bring in Da’ Funk.

Smith was born in New York City on July 20, 1938, to Anna Margaret Grayson, a Katherine Dunham dancer, and Joseph Benjamin Smith, a tap dancer and drummer who performed in a family act with Cab Calloway and the famed Nicholas Brothers. He grew up in the Bronx and graduated from Evander Childs High School.

Smith is survived by his children Michael Smith, Monica Richard Smith, Elka Samuels Smith, Jason Samuels Smith and Rocky Smith; siblings in New York and St. Louis; grandchildren; cousins; and scores of loving friends and students. He was predeceased by son Christopher Smith.